Faced with criticism from lawmakers and advocates, the Federal Communications Commission has backed away from a plan to conclude that mobile broadband is a substitute for wireline service.
"Mobile services are not full substitutes for fixed services — there are salient differences between the two technologies," the agency said Thursday afternoon in a fact sheet outlining key items from its upcoming draft report on the state of broadband deployment.
The statement reflects a shift away from a notice released last August, when the FCC solicited public opinion for an upcoming report about the state of broadband deployment. In that notice, the FCC said it it may — for the first time — set benchmarks for mobile broadband service.
At the time, the agency proposed defining mobile broadband as service at speeds of at least 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream. Wireline broadband, by contrast, is defined as speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. The FCC's notice also posed a number of questions about mobile broadband, including whether wireline and mobile service should be evaluated as "separate and distinct ways to achieve advanced telecommunications capability."
Consumer groups and lawmakers reacted with alarm to the idea that the FCC would decide that mobile service of just 10 Mbps downstream could substitute for wireline connections at the higher speed of 25 Mbps. Last September, a group of lawmakers warned the FCC that a decision to consider mobile broadband an acceptable substitute for wireline service would mark a "striking change in policy" that would particularly hurt people in rural and low-income areas. (The FCC reported two years ago that nearly four in 10 rural Americans don't have access to internet service of at least 25 Mbps.)
Earlier this week, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) and Rep. Andy Harris (R-Maryland) reiterated concerns about the FCC's plan.
The FCC's statement Thursday indicates that the agency has heard some of the concerns about its prior plan. At the same time, language in the fact sheet also suggests that the FCC is giving itself some wiggle room. The agency writes: "The draft report takes a holistic view of the market and examines whether we are both making progress in deploying fixed broadband service and making progress in deploying mobile broadband service."
It's not clear what the FCC means by "holistic view." Also unclear is how the agency plans to use data about mobile broadband service to determine overall "progress."
But Harold Feld, senior vice president of advocacy group Public Knowledge, says the FCC appears to be giving itself plenty of leeway. He tells MediaPost that the FCC's language is "sufficiently squishy" to let it draw the conclusions it wishes.
The current draft report also concludes that the FCC is "meeting its statutory mandate to encourage the deployment of broadband on a reasonable and timely basis."
That's significant because the FCC is supposed to take action if providers fail to deploy broadband on a timely basis.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, had a mixed reaction to the agency's announcement. "Glad @FCC dropped crazy idea to lower the national broadband speed standard," she tweeted Thursday afternoon. "We don't fix problems by lowering standards. But it defies logic that at the same time the agency concludes all broadband deployment is 'reasonable & timely' when 24 million Americans lack access today."